Saturday is a big day of racing, with the Dubai World Cup program, the Florida Derby and a stakes-packed card for the reopening weekend at Santa Anita, but I’m momentarily pulling back from the action to focus on something that can put more money in your pockets in the long run.
I thought the golden age of handicapping books had ended some time ago, but I’m delighted to report that I was wrong.
Barry Meadow’s new tome “The Skeptical Handicapper” is an instant classic, marrying a deep data dive with a thorough exploration of the mental makeup required to be a winning player.
Meadow, who will be familiar to many readers as the author of “Money Secrets at the Racetrack” and the man behind the defunct Meadow’s Racing Monthly handicapping newsletter, waited until he retired to work on the new book.
“I’ve got a library full of handicapping books, and I was rarely satisfied with what I read because people didn’t use statistics,” he told the Review-Journal this week. “Once I retired, I said, ‘I want to do it my way, with data.’ ”
Working with thoroughbred researcher Ken Massa, Meadow analyzed every race run in North America from 2014 through 2017 — more than 168,000 contests — looking for angles that continue to produce positive results — even in the age of algorithms and dramatic last-minute odds shifts.
He did find a few: For example, if you bet every one of the 3,033 2-year-olds who made their debut after recording a “bullet” — the fastest drill of the day at a particular distance — in their final workout during that period you’d have turned a decent 6 percent profit.
But the best part of the book, in my opinion, are the parts where Meadow walks the reader through the many questions that a handicapper needs to answer before deciding how to — or whether to — bet a particular race.
He said a big part of his motivation in writing the book was helping players up their games.
“If I want to be a baseball player at 45, I can practice and practice but I’m never going to make the majors,” he said. “But you can keep improving in horse racing. … Experience counts and knowledge counts and that you get doing it day after day.”
You can order “The Skeptical Handicapper” on Amazon, but you can put a few more pennies in Meadow’s pocket by ordering it directly from his publishing house, TRpublishing.com. The cost is $37.99, and he’ll autograph it and ship it free of charge.
#RJhorseracing featured races
If there’s such a thing as too much racing, Saturday could be it.
Fans who want to watch the Dubai World Cup races, where some of America’s best racehorses will take on the world, will have to crawl out of bed early. The first thoroughbred race is the Godolphin Mile at 5:15 a.m., and the main event — the $12 million Dubai World Cup — is set for 9:40 a.m.
Meantime, the racing world will be watching as Santa Anita reopens Friday after a three-week closure following a spate of fatal injuries to horses. Saturday’s card is packed with five stakes races to make up for lost time.
The #RJhandicappers, however, are focused on Gulfstream Park, where the $1 million Florida Derby will, we hope, provide a few more clues about this year’s so far inscrutable crop of 3-year-olds. Just for good measure, we’re also tackling Race 11 on the card, a $25,000 allowance/optional claiming race for Florida-breds.
In the latter, a 7-furlong dash for 4-year-olds and up, the handicapping crew is backing Restored Hope, the 9-2 second choice on the morning line, over So Long Chuck (8-1), with Gleason (5-1) and Rock Doc (8-1) tied for third.
I’ll take a shot with Candygram (12-1) in hopes the son of Candy Ride will be a bit tighter in his second start off a layoff, with Restored Hope and Gleason rounding out my top three.
In the Grade 1 Florida Derby, the crowd ‘cappers are backing Code of Honor, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line, over Harvey Wallbanger (15-1). They see Hidden Scroll, (5-2) the morning line chalk, finishing third.
“Loved the way he moved winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes; working bullets for 2nd off layoff,” wrote Carlo Campanella of the group’s choice.
I’ll go with Maximum Security (9-2) who takes a big step up in class while also attempting to stretch his speed around two turns for trainer Jason Servis. I like Hidden Scroll for second and the late-running Bourbon War to get the show dough.
We start a new free handicapping contest next week, so drop me an email or follow me on Twitter if you’d like to get involved.
Ellis Starr’s Florida Derby analysis
Bourbon War makes his third start as a 3-year-old and based on his pattern of improvement appears to be sitting on the best race of his career. Off an impressive maiden win last fall around one turn, Bourbon War was asked to step up his game tremendously when entered in the Remsen Stakes and checked in fourth of nine while never threatening to win. Returning in mid-January as a much more mature horse and debuting around two-turns without a prep race, Bourbon War won with a then career-best Equibase Speed Figure of 107. Six weeks later in the Fountain of Youth, Bourbon War improved again, this time earning a 110 figure while rallying from ninth in the opening quarter mile to be second at the wire, beaten three-quarters of a length by Code of Honor and making up nearly four lengths on that rival in the last eighth of a mile. As a son of Tapit, who produced 2014 Florida Derby winner Constitution, Bourbon War should run even better at this 9-furlong trip and with more improvement in his Equibase Speed Figure expected, may be very tough to beat in this race.
Code of Honor won in his debut last summer then, after stumbling at the start, rallied from 10th to second in the Champagne Stakes in the fall. Rested three months, Code of Honor returned to finish a non-threatening fourth in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in January. Trainer Shug McGaughey took the blame for that poor effort and stated between that race and the Fountain of Youth he worked Code of Honor very hard, resulting in a rebound of the first order when the colt won at odds of 9 to 1. Code of Honor earned a 111 in that race, which was not only a career-best but the highest last race figure in this field. As he is making his third start off the three month layoff, better is certainly possible. As such, Code of Honor deserves a lot of respect when considering who can win this year’s Florida Derby.
Bodexpress will likely go to post at high odds, which in my opinion will be unjustified because he’s got a decent shot to be a contender in the Florida Derby. Horses don’t often earn the first wins of their careers in graded stakes as 3-year-olds. Bodexpress ran the best race of his career last month when second, beaten a neck, in a 7-furlong sprint. That race earned him a 103 speed figure. With improvement, he must be given a long look as another upset possibility in a month where there have been so many in Derby prep races. Additionally, as a son of Bodemeister, who produced 2017 Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, Bodexpress is bred to go the distance. And if (as appears likely) stretching out Hard Belle and Maximum Security go for the lead and if Hidden Scroll runs as he did in the Fountain of Youth where he set a sizzling early pace, Bodexpress could be passing many, if not all of the field, in the stretch.
Harvey Wallbanger posted a 29 to 1 upset in the Holy Bull Stakes over the track in February and has waited for this race ever since, passing the Fountain of Youth while continuing to train exceptionally well in the morning. His most recent workout on March 23 was the best of 100 on the day for the distance of 4 furlongs, indicating he’s in peak form. The Holy Bull effort earned him a career-best 104 figure which would be competitive with the main contenders if he improves on it. Additionally, Harvey Wallbanger rallied from ninth in the Holy Bull and if a hot early pace scenario comes to pass in this race he is another who could be strongly rallying in the stretch.
As for Hidden Scroll, it may have been the case he was pushed by another horse (Gladiator King, who since won the Hutcheson Stakes) and forced to run way too fast in the early stages before fading to fourth as the favorite in the Fountain of Youth. It could be just as likely he has yet to learn to relax and is a need-the-lead type. With Hard Belle and Maximum Security both stretching out from sprints and both likely to be running faster-than-average in the early stages while on or very close to the front, I’m taking a stand Hidden Scroll will get tired from either trying to go with those two or chasing a hot pace and I therefore I don’t consider him a contender to win this race.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.